Some years ago I was introduced to a website (which shall remain nameless) dedicated to awful photos––of autopsies, accident victims, malignant tumors, deformities, meth addiction. I remember one image, of a man who was thrown from his motorcycle face-first onto the pavement so that his bottom jaw was ripped off. I will always remember that image. I have no doubt that there are many other sites like this one, where people can ogle not only pain and suffering but the most grotesque, visceral pain and suffering available.
Now there is Untraceable, a movie that takes this very real perversion and amplifies it to an extreme that seems both horrifying and natural, even inevitable. There is a serial killer loose in Portland, Oregon, but he never touches his victims. Instead he straps them to torture devices which are wired into the counter on his personal website. Each time someone visits the site, the mechanism increases the torture––in one case by releasing sulfuric acid drop by drop into a tank where a man is strapped down. After a certain number of hits, the victim dies. If no one visits the site, nothing happens. Of course many, many people visit the site, and each new victim takes less time to kill as word spreads.
Diane Lane plays Jennifer Marsh, the FBI Cyber Crimes Division agent assigned to the case. She works with the nerdy Griffin Dowd and lives with her mother and 8-year-old daughter, and the movie leaves little question that at least one of these people will have an unpleasant encounter with the killer before the movie is over. Nor do we imagine when tidbits like a roto-tiller, a downloaded racing game, Morse code, and Korean artwork get mentioned that these are merely decorative details.
The screenplay, by no less than Robert Fyvolent, Mark Brinker, and Allison Burnett, (you can just taste the studio-ordered rewrites) makes these planted seeds scream because it gives nothing to care about in its characters. Mrs. Lane plays Marsh with a convincing gravity, but the movie is hardly concerned with her. It isn’t even particularly concerned with the provocative premise. Shockingly, Untraceable revels in the guilty thrill of watching people being slowly killed. Naturally we hope they’ll survive, and it’s suspenseful to watch––but still we watch. The movie invites us to.
Untraceable has been compared with the Saw films and with David Fincher’s Seven; the former have a penchant for showcasing gory torture, as this movie does, and the latter questions mankind’s basic goodness, as this movie would like to think it does. But there are two differences between Untraceable and Seven: the latter never showed the acts of torture it inventoried, only their aftermath, and it was trenchant and brave, while Untraceable is a Reader’s Digest tour of depravity. Untraceable observes the contemptible behavior of humans without analyzing it and hopes the implication of a commentary will suffice to pass observation off as insight.
Well, I am fully aware that the Internet has brought out the worst in a tremendous swath of people. I have no doubt that if a live-murder site ever surfaced, it would draw millions of hits. I am not interested in witnessing the spectacle of this hypothetical affair any more than I am interested in watching someone die a horrible death, onscreen or otherwise. Untraceable, by its lack of interest in how and where the depraved web-crawlers breed, reduces itself with unbearable irony to just another gory spectacle to wag our fingers at.
The movie’s most resonant details are the comments that visitors to the murderous site post next to the streaming image of the victim. “omg, sooooo wrong”; “uve got to be kidng me”; “where can I download this vid?”. These are comments divorced from civilization much less civility, betraying a preoccupation with idyll and entertainment so profound it has mushroomed into total detachment from reality. The isolation of the Internet separates us from the world’s atrocities even as we comment on them and, in the case of Untraceable, help perpetrate them. The review publication “Christian Spotlight on the Movies” observes, “With the invention of the Internet, double lives have formed. People have found that they can have anonymity and hide their sins.” There is a profound dark side to humanity that the Internet has unveiled, and it has yet to be truly explored in cinema.
Watching Untraceable, I was far less interested in Marsh and her family than in the moral conundrum of the 27 million people who visited the murderous website. Theirs was a simple decision: click, or don’t click. They knew what the site was. They had heard it from their friends. And they clicked. Re-visiting the site with the autopsy and tumor photos in preparation for writing this review, I am compelled to click on a link to pictures of rotting, meth-addicted teeth. Closing that, a second link beckons, to see someone dismembered in a Philippine execution. This is how it begins. I close the page and look up, to see fresh snow falling on dogwoods outside my window.